Recently, Clive Hamilton again argued that we'd all be better off if we consumed less. The reason we all want the latest plasma tv or fast car, according to Clive, is not because big TVs are better or driving a nice car feels good, it's simply because I want to make others feel jealous of me. If I pull into my driveway in my new Nissan 350Z, only to find my neighbour bought a just as good Alfa Romeo, then, despite the effort, allegedly neither of us are better off. In sum, there is a coordination problem: we should all just argee to be more lazy.
However, since it's unlikely that a whole country of people will cooperate, people like Clive generally advocate the government stepping in and doing it for us. Fortunately, most countries have not been crazy enough to implement Clive's ideas but there's one exception: the French.
In the late 1990s, the French Government decreed that, with few exceptions, everyone would be restricted to only working 35 hours a week. Ostensibly, it was introduced to increase employment (following a lengthy tradition of successful French labour policies), yet it also provides an interesting test of Clive’s theories. As a result of the laws, everyone in France simultaneously increased their leisure, so presumably they should all be better off.
Well, the results from the French guinea pigs are in and they are not good for Clive and his band of fellow ascetics. A recent paper from Marcello Estevao (from the IMF) and Filipa Sa (from MIT) show that French workers are now less satisfied with their working arrangements. As the author's state:
Overall, our evaluation of the effects of the 35-hours workweek law is negative ... The 35-hours mandate did not work as a coordination mechanism in the presence of strong complementarities in leisure. Instead, it apparently introduced a distortion in workers’ choices and made them less happy.Indeed, many French actively tried to circumvent the laws. There was an increased probablity of a worker taking a second job (a proxy for wanting to work more hours) and of moving from a large firm to a small firm (small firms had longer to implement the changes).
So, not surprisingly, people seem to be happier if left to decide how to make themselves happy. As an aside, the policy also did not significantly increase employment and the immdeiate prospects for real labour reform in France seem to be interminably blocked by another great French tradition: riots.